How Kurt Elster Monetized And Grew A Podcast to 750K Downloads
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I'm Kurt Elster, and I host The Unofficial Shopify Podcast. With 750,000 downloads, 200 episodes, and four sponsors, it’s become quite the media machine for us.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2009 I quit my job to start an ecommerce SaaS. That didn't work out. Turns out building your own ecommerce platform is far harder than this novice had thought, and getting an entire industry onboard with a then crazy idea was extremely difficult.
We needed to keep the lights so we started accepting freelance wordpress and web development work. Among those projects was a friend who owned a bike shop that asked us for help building an easy to manage ecommerce site for his shop. This was in 2011, and we’d been hearing good thing about Shopify, so we gave it a shot.
Shooting for the moon, we chose to design & develop a custom them as our first Shopify project. This got us noticed and invited to the early Shopify Experts program. With some luck, our second project was building a Shopify theme for Bandon Dunes Golf Course.
After a few year, I made the radical decision to niche down and work exclusively on the ecommerce platform Shopify as an ecommerce consultant with a small agency team of three people (including me.)
I had a few hundred people on my email list at that time, but we started getting referrals pretty within 60 days of that announcement.
I knew I needed a way to consistently market our services, so I'd been guesting on podcasts. At the end of each interview, since I was new to it, I'd ask for feedback. By the time the third person told me, "You're a natural, you should host your own podcast," I decided to go for it– but only after discovering I didn't have to worry about editing.
Previously, the thing that had stopped me was the work involved in editing. I’d never done it before, it was tedious, time-consuming, and I hadn’t gotten over hearing my own voice. No one likes hearing their own voice in playback. Turns out my business partner, Paul Reda, edited the Onion A/V Club's first podcast years ago, so I had an automatic unfair advantage there.
I knew content marketing was important, I don’t think I’d ever listened to a podcast before but there was something alluring about a podcast. I think it was because around the same I had just bought a new car with Sirius satellite radio, and had become fascinated with Howard Stern’s interviews, as well as some Larry King interviews. After binging both, I became fascinated with the rhythm that a good interview take on.
Once I knew that I didn’t have to edit it myself, I bought a $30 Samson Go Mic, bought a domain name, hosted it on Simplecast, and got to work recording our first ever (very painful to listen to now) podcast episode.
Take us through the process of getting started and launching.
Starting a podcast is really as simple as deciding on what format your comfortable with. I had been listening to a lot of Howard Stern, and I loved his interviews, so I figured I would give that a try. Plus I knew I didn’t love doing monologues. The magic of an interview is that the host does 20% of the talking. It’s mostly just being an attentive listener. From my work in biz dev, I’d already gotten familiar with the importance of listening. It felt like a skill I could approach pragmatically.
We settled on “The Unofficial Shopify Podcast” as a practical working title and it stuck. It was too accurate of a description to not use it.
From there, we recorded our first podcast episode with a client as a guest, and from there, started interviewing my friends. That kept the pressure low.
I very quickly figured it out an approach that worked. There’s a rhythm to it. I start with 3-4 core questions, write down follow up questions while the speaker is talking, and try to be part cheerleader and part journalist. You have to get excited with the guest and at the same time know when to interrupt with a follow-up question to unpack a statement. Knowing when to interrupt someone is the toughest part to figure out. Some guests will ramble to fill air because they’re nervous and blew right past some interesting tidbit that I want to unpack, but conversely, if you interrupt too much, its annoying for the audience. It's a balancing act that after 200 episodes, I’m still trying to perfect.
After we recorded ten or so episodes, we took a break for their holidays (something we never did again) and then resumed it the next year and never gave up.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Just like with SEO, it’s all about optimizing your iTunes listing. Professional episode art plus a compelling description helps to stand out in the search listings. The thing most people screw up (including myself for years) is the length of the title and the summary of the episode. iTunes gives you a fraction of tweet worth of text, so you need to approach the title and summary like an editor writing a newspaper headline. Concise & punchy. Writing the show title is one of the hardest parts of producing the show.
Look at that description length! I’m still screwing it up.
After that, getting reviews is one of the hardest but most impactful things. We ask every guest before and after their interview to leave a review and share the show to extend the reach of their own episode.
For ongoing promotion, just like how every YouTube video ends with “like & subscribe!”, you have give listeners that call to action in the show, show notes, and everywhere else. “Don’t forget to review & subscribe. Swipe up on the show art to see the show notes.”
We’ve tried Google and Facebook ads but never been successful with it to promote the show.
Having a Facebook group for the show has been a great way to build a community around it. We’ve grown to ~2,000 members, and its become far more engagement than my email list has ever been. The nicest part about is that it a single person asking a question in public in the group and getting an answer can add value to dozens of people who may read it that day. It lets us help our community effectively at scale.
If I had to do it over again, I’d launch with 3-5 episodes to get a better shot at reaching new & noteworthy in iTunes. Subscribing to a show is a commitment and an exercise in relationship building. Launching with multiple episodes helps build that trust with your audience, and in return, it also helps extend the number of listens you get early on which may get you noticed for iTunes new & noteworthy. That featured placement can 10x your growth.
What’s the business model and how you do make money?
The podcast was intended to primarily be a way to give back to the Shopify community, build goodwill, and give us something of value (an interview) to offer in outreach efforts.
What we didn't expect were the sponsorships. After about a year, a local logistics company who had just built an Shopify integration, reached out, and asked if they could sponsor an episode.
I was terrified I would alienate our small group of listeners by having ads. To my surprise, no one cared. I've never had one complaint about our sponsorships. An interesting thing happened, having one sponsor resulted in more reaching out. It builds on itself. I now get weekly inquiries about sponsorship availability. We have four sponsors now, one paid for an entire year upfront, the others are on monthly recurring subscriptions that have been going for years.
I think the first time we had a sponsor, we billed at most $200 for a single episode. Now we charge double that.
We've monetized the podcast directly through sponsorships. That's the monthly revenue number stated here. What's not included is affiliate commission for products we believe in like Out of The Sandbox Shopify themes or Klaviyo, and the consulting work that comes out of it. The podcast is our number one lead gen source.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Writing a good outreach email is possibly the most powerful skill you can develop in 2019. I had to figure this out to be able to get good guests. I’ve also been on the receiving end of a lot of outreach emails, and they’re mostly awful.
Here’s what to do to write a great outreach email:
- Be polite.
- Talk about the recipient and what you can do for them. If your email start with “I…” over and over, you’re doing it wrong. You want to answer “what’s in it for the reader” primarily.
- Invite the no. “Feel free to say to no, but…”
- Give an easy and clear call to action, like, “Reply with a thumbs up, and I’ll send over next steps.” That way have to send literally a single emoji.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Call Recorder for Skype to record the show, Calendly to schedule guests, TextExpander to save time on emails, Audacity to edit, and Simplecast to host it.
As for hardware, I’m running a Shure SM7B microphone into a dbx 286s to do live compression and noise gating to shorten our production time (and ensure I sound good when guesting on other shows.)
A Focusrite Scarlett Solo acts as a USB interface and direct monitor with my Beyer Dynamic DT770 headphones. I bought these headphones solely because they have optional velour ear pads which are so much more comfortable and less sweaty than the typical vinyl headphones.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Because I host a business podcast, I don’t actually listen to any business podcasts. (I mostly listen to True Crime podcasts.)
I do love business books though:
- Value Based Fees by Alan Weiss - Brilliant book that got me to start charging equitable compensation for my work
- Ask by Ryan Levesque - This is was the first book that introduced me to the concepts of customer development and email marketing automation, both powerful tools.
- The Brain Audit by Sean D’Souza - I read half a dozen books on copywriting and never quite understood it until I discovered The Brain Audit. This is the one book that made copywriting click for me.
- Unfuck Yourself by Gary John Bishop - Everyone deal with anxiety, this is a quick read that gives you the tools to manage your own anxiety.
- Winning Through Intimidation by Robert J. Ringer - Despite the odd name, this is a great book on the concept of “frame control.” It’ll teach you how to recognize it.
- Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff - The bits about “frame control” changed how I viewed the world. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
There’s no trick. Show up and do the work:
Launch with 3-5 episodes
Stick to a consistent schedule
Guest on other similar podcasts to get in front of their audience
Do this for 3-5 years and you’ll be successful.
I use Simplecast to host the show, we edit with Audacity.
Audio quality is less important than you think. A Blue Yeti mic and a QUIET room is all you need. I can’t stress the quiet part enough. Room quality is equally important as mic.
The best place to record in your house is probably your coat closet, with the coats because it’ll have no echo, no vent, no window. (Every SoundCloud rapper knows this.)
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I'm currently considering advisory roles. Ideally, I'd like to help a Shopify Partner or Merchant scale their business with my experience.
Offering paid advice through Clarity.fm or coaching retainers has been meaningful for me and impactful for the advisee, so joining a Board of Advisors feels like the next logical step up.
Where can we go to learn more?
The Unofficial Shopify Podcast has provided an update on their business!
About 3 years ago, we followed up with The Unofficial Shopify Podcast to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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